Velella: Goodfella (revised more than once)
David Lachmann: Now, now, Gatey. Harsh words can't hurt the dead, which is why we so rarely speak ill of them.
Really, I want to people to believe that this Department is about more than dancing upon the graves of the dead.
Its primary purpose is to do all one can to alienate those who hold power, and when that is done, to alienate their opposition as well.
But the press coverage of the death of former State Senator Guy Velella, even as it highlights his greatest moments of public disgrace, does its best to really avoid the truth.
It is not only the fawning comments of Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein which grate, with their fond reminiscences. Even a cursory investigation of the life of Guy Velella, and his father and mentor, Vincent Velella, can only lead one to conclude that father and son were essentially adjuncts of the mob for the entirety of their adult lives. Yet even Tom Robbins, one of the journalists whose work most leads one to draw such a conclusion, goes all half-sentimental in recounting the late Senator.In an article reminiscent of the title of a famous book about despicable Jewish gangsters, “But He Was Good to His Mother,” Robbins touchingly recounts how when Velella and his 90 year old, wheel-chair bound father were indicted (dad for at least the second time) in 2002, the strongest evidence was against dad, who was heard on a surveillance tape opening a drawer in his desk and instructing someone to drop in the cash. As Robbins recounts, in 2004, in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charges against dad, Senator V agreed to plead guilty, accept a jail term, and give up his own license to practice law.“Say what you will…about his finagling on behalf of law clients doing state business, his many underworld allies, and the patronage hacks he foisted upon the taxpayers…” says Robbins.
But he was good to his father.
And his father is where we should begin. Here, for instance, is what World Heavy Weight Champ Floyd Patterson had to say about life after loss of his title.
“If I was concerned about my reputation then, before the fight, imagine what I must have thought of it afterward, when I not only was beaten, but other things came out which made me wonder whether I'd ever get a second chance to prove myself. About the middle of July things began to appear in the papers that left me completely bewildered. When names like Vincent Velella, "Fat Tony" Salerno, Frank Erickson and Gilbert Lee Beckley began showing up in the stories, I didn't believe them.”Concurring in this revulsion was the man who beat Patterson, Ingemar Johansson, who called Vince Velella out as a mob money man. Describing a meeting with Vince Velella and an associate, Johansson said “We had a chance to talk in person to these two mysterious gentlemen: I might as well call Kahn and Velella gentlemen here, because I will not call either of them by that title again.”
In the manner of Jake Lamotta in “The Raging Bull,” there was a time in New York when LaMotta’s Morris Park neighbor, Vincent Velella, was one of the men a boxer had to deal with if he wanted permission to get the right bouts.
At one point, Vince Velella controlled 2/3rds of an important boxing promotion company called Rosensohn Enterprises Inc (which promoted both Patterson-Johansson fights), much to the chagrin of Bill Rosensohn, who had thought he controlled it. Then, just as suddenly, Velella did not control it either. In truth, Velella was a frontman for convicted gangster Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno. He was caught on tape saying as much and indicted for perjury for denying it. He was not, however, convicted because the judge barred the admission of the recorded conversations in which Velella was heard talking about his influence with Salerno.Over time, conversations on other mob tapes identified Vince as "house counsel."
I do not want to cavalierly visit the sins of the father upon the son. There have been several politicians who’ve been the children of mobsters without themselves being implicated in such dealings. One of them was the former Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who though close with some of the children and grandchildren of his father’s East Harlem associate, Lou Carbonetti, and sometimes turning a blind eye to the corruption of his own close associates, seems to have had an almost Oedipal hatred for mobsters and their associates, including, for a time, Vincent Velella (though eventually he would make his peace).
Another example is a former State Senator with an exemplary record of public service. The third, a Judge, who wouldn’t even attend her father’s own sentencing.
But it was not this way with Guy Velella. Throughout his career, his father was his mentor, his protégé, his patronage appointee, and his partner, both in his law office and his crimes (which were seemingly indistinguishable).Despite the existence in our politics of mobster wannabes like Tony Seminerio, the Velellas were special. In a city where mobsters once held great sway in our politics, the Velellas were perhaps the last of a dying breed.
It was not always thus.
As perhaps most colorfully chronicled by journalist and sometimes pol Warren Moscow in his books “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and “The Last of The Big Time Bosses,” the mob was once a mainstay of our City Politics. In fact, as Moscow religiously chronicles, at one point the wars between the various factions in the New York County Democratic Organization were largely a battle for control between the forces of Frank Costello and Thomas “Three Fingers Brown” Luchese.
The most prominent pols showing mob influence were a Congressman named Vito Marcantonio, and two Mayors in whose career he played a crucial role, Bill O’ Dwyer and Vincent Impellitteri.
Marcantonio was unique in that his support rested on the twin pillars of two factions normally at odds, the mob and the Communist Party, who had fought each other in battle after battle in control of various unions.
Marcantonio was the boss of Harlem. He controlled the Democrats there and he controlled the Republicans. And Statewide, he controlled the State’s largest third party, the American Labor Party (ALP) through courtesy of his alliance of convenience with the well organized Communists.
Marc, as he was known, was a protégé of LaGuardia. While LaGuardia had taken much delight in fighting the mob across the City, targeting activities like Burlesque and slot machines, Moscow contends that in Harlem, LaGuardia told the Police to follow Marc’s orders. Shades of the Godfather, a Police Detective from the local Precinct served as Marc's personal bodyguard. Underworld protection came in exchange for cash and election day manpower. Marc’s technique was to eschew money himself and pass on this lucrative franchise to those District Leaders of any party who had his back. In the days before the Wilson-Pakula law, Marc would contest every party’s nomination, with the support of leaders from all parties who owed Marc their personal loyalty.
It was in this environment that Vincent Velella, like Luchese, a childhood friend of Marc’s, became active in East Harlem’s Republican politics, eventually becoming a Republican District Leader.
And Marc took care of his childhood friends, getting Luchese's son into West Point (unlike Vito Corleone, Luchese did not place the contract with the Jew from the next district).
Well, unlike some of Marc's other friends, at least Luchese's son was not a threat to our national security.
Eventually though, Marc did Luchese an even bigger favor.
Upon LaGuardia’s retirement in 1945, Marc joined the City’s Democratic bosses in backing O’Dwyer for Mayor. O’D, the Brooklyn DA, had a reputation for mob-busting only slightly tainted by his friendship with characters like Joe Adonis and the fact that a key witness in the killing of gangland boss Albert Anastasia, one Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, under 24 hour guard in Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel by a group of cops O’D had handpicked, had somehow managed to fall to his death from a 14th story window.
O’D was supposed to run with Lawrence Gerosa, a Bronx Italian, for Comptroller, and Irving Davidson, a Manhattan Jew, for City Council President. Then, at the last minute, O’D balked, Marc put his weight and the ALP’s behind O’D, and the bosses agreed to substitute Lazarus Joseph, a Bronx Jew, for Comptroller.
It was the Council President substitution which raised eyebrows.
For the job next in line to the Mayor, O’D chose the unknown Vincent Impellitteri, a Law Secretary to a Judge named Schmuck. Tammany Secretary Bert Stand jokingly told reporters that needing a Manhattan Italian for the ticket, they looked through the City Green Book and found Impy.
The reporters took Stand at his word.
Years later, the truth came out. While in the office of Congressman and Bronx Deputy Democratic Leader Charlie Buckley, Marc picked up the phone and called O’D, saying “Bill-o, you’ve got to rearrange the ticket. I’ve got my own ginzo from Manhattan, Vince Impellitteri.” According to Moscow, the deal was done by Marc at the request of Luchese.
The ticket won and in 1950, O’D, under the siege of investigation, resigned to become Ambassador to Mexico and Impy became Mayor, dividing control over the town’s affairs between Luchese and Robert Moses.
But Marc’s willingness to parrot the Communist Party line (after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Marc headed the American Peace Mobilization, and following the invasion of Russia by Germany, he headed up the American People’s Mobilization for War) stopped being an advantage around 1946, when American planes were being shot down over Yugoslavia.
Marc got opposition in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. Tammany stuck with Marc, and tampered with the paper ballots to make sure he was their nominee, but Governor Dewey ordered Manhattan Republican Leader Tom Curran to drop the Party’s support for Marc. Local Republican leaders and activists in the Harlem part of the District, like Vince Velella, ignored Curran, but in the Republican Primary, Yorkville prevailed over Harlem, and suddenly Marc faced a real general election.
But though Marc won the election, his victory ultimately sewed the seeds of his destruction, and in this case it was not Marc’s unsavory alliance with the Communists which cost him, but his unsavory alliance with the mob.
During an election eve conference of East Harlem Republican captains, a Republican election district captain named Joseph Scottoriggio turned down an offer from local mobsters to take a bribe to work for Marc, or at least to turn a blind eye to fraud on Marc’s behalf.
Scotoriggio was thought to be worth about 600 votes, and Scottoriggio was also thought to have compiled an extensive list of voters registered from buildings which no longer existed, and was thought to be ready to challenge anyone claiming to be one of those voters.
As Scottoriggio walked to his polling place early the next morning, he was beaten to death by four gentlemen thought to be associated with mobsters.
Later, Anthony Lagano, a Marcantonio captain wanted for questioning as a material witnesses to various events involved in the crime was found floating in the East River.
The Police conducted an extensive investigation of the Scottoriggio homicide; among those questioned were Lucchese and Fat Tony Salerno.
The beating- turned murder was allegedly planned at the East Harlem apartment of the local numbers boss, "Trigger Mike" Coppola (whose phone conversations with Vince Velella later figured in Vince's perjury trial). Mike's wife Doris was thought have witnessed the proceedings, as was Lagano. Also noted in some accounts is that a Republican District Leader (unnamed) was also present.
Doris went on the lam just after the beating, and was also sought as a material witness. Eventually she turned herself in, and its was revelaed she had been staying at the mansion of a Providence crime boss. Doris' grand jury testimony resulted in a perjury indictment. However, she was with child, and was allowed to delay her trial until after she gave birth.
She never left the hospital, having died in her bed from "complications."
No autopsy was ever held to determine the exact cause of death because Coppola had her cremated, after which the case against Coppola also died from "complcations."
Shortly thereafter, Coppola "retired" to Florida and Fat Tony Salerno took over his policy racket.
After I first published this this piece, an extremely reliable source dropped this interesting anecdote into my lap.In his later years, when serving on the Board of Elections, Vince Velella used to ride in from the Bronx with his East Harlem neighbor turned Morris Park neighbor, the Board's Executive Director, Danny DeFrancisco.
One day, Danny called a lawyer friend who was well acquainted with the Velellas.
“You gotta talk to Guy. The old man is losing it, and he keeps telling people stories from the old days about the things they used to do in the Marcantonio campaigns in the 40s.”
The lawyer replied “that’s cute.”
Danny said, “Well, I’m worried about the Statute of Limitations.”
The lawyer was taken aback. “Danny, that’s so long ago, there’s only one crime for which the Statute of Limitations hasn’t run.”
“Like I said, you need to talk to Guy.”
The legislature passed the Wilson-Pakula Law, to keep Marc from running in the Dem and GOP primaries, but with the help of a Tammany dive and divided opposition, Marc hung on in 48. However, by 1950, Costello ally Carmine DeSapio, the new Manhattan Democratic Leader, made a deal with Republicans on united opposition, and Marc’s career was over.
Marc died in 1954, but though denied a church funeral by the rabidly anti-Communist Cardinal Spellman, his eclectic collection of pallbearers included not only Communists like W.E.B DuBois, but also Republicans like Vincent Velella (by then so promiment in Party affairs that, two years later, he would be a Republican Presidential Elector).
Velella denied his affiliation with Marcantonio was ideological, and who could doubt him?As City Limits put it: “The roots of those days run deep. Even though he’s a staunch conservative, Vincent Velella, the 84-year-old Bronx Republican who runs the city Board of Elections, grew up in the neighborhood and claims Marcantonio as a boyhood friend. Between coughing fits at the podium, Velella insisted that Marcantonio, whose pro-Communist stance helped him carry East Harlem as the American Labor Party’s 1949 mayoral candidate, was not really as red as reputation had it. ‘Today, people make Marcantonio out to be a radical, but he was never a radical,’ he said.
Ironically the coalition DeSapio built with labor and liberals to defeat Impy in 1953 primary in favor of Robert Wagner, pretty much ended mob control of the County Party by sweeping out the Luchese forces.
Yes, there were still mob connected leaders operating in NYC, at least into the 1980s. I am told that Frank Costello once took a young Irish boy under his wings in the manner of Vito Corleone and Tom Hagen, and that when Costello felt compelled to retire to Europe, he introduced the boy to a friend, and told the boy, who later became a judge, that this gentlemen shall now be the one you call “Papa.”
That man’s name was Meade Esposito, and according to Jimmy Breslin, Espositio was later under the control of one Paul Castellano.
But by 2004, the Velellas and their associates were the last really significant mob connected pols left standing.
Towards the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, seemingly virtually every East Harlem Italian, including the Velellas and the local Congressman, Alfred Santangelo, moved to Morris Park in the Bronx. Santangelo actually had the nerve to run for Manhattan Borough President in 1961, when he was already living on the mainland, but by the 1962 reapportionment, he acknowledged the truth and ran against the local Bronx Republican incumbent, Paul Fino.
Guy Velella and his father eventually went into a law partnership with the area’s Republican State Senator, John Calandra. And in 1972, young Guy Velella was elected to the Assembly from Morris Park and Throg’s Neck.
In 1981, Guy took one for the team, and served as the Republican sacrificial lamb candidate against City Council President Carol Bellamy. He displayed his considerable personal charm and humor when he showed up at Bellamy’s victory party before the polls closed carrying a dozen roses. He later served the same function against Comptroller Jay Golden in 1985, but without the flowers.
But in 1982, came reapportionment, and Bronx whites had to suck up the loss of some Assembly seats. Velella’s district was combined with that of Democrat John Dearie. It was a dirty, ugly campaign with really awful radio spots nastily comparing “Velella and the other fella.”
Assemblyman John Dearie, Democrat of the Bronx, called yesterday for investigations into campaign literature that declared ''Dearie has done more to integrate Parkchester and our community than any other politician.''
According to Mr. Dearie, the literature reprints photographs of Mr. Dearie with black politicians from one of his brochures in last year's Democratic primary for City Comptroller.
The new brochures, he said, were mailed to white areas of the 75th Assembly District, a newly drawn district in the northwestern section of the borough where he is running against Assemblyman Guy J. Velella, a Republican.......Mr. Velella said that he had nothing to do with the literature. He said that Mr. Dearie himself ''apparently made a mistake and sent a black piece to the wrong areas.''
As Velella noted with frankness at the time: "'If voters say that he is a nice guy and I am a nice guy, I lose.''
But the sheer brute strength of the Assembly’s Democratic Campaign Committee won the day for Dearie.
But 1982 also planted the seeds for the future Velella empire. John Calandra, knowing the Bronx alone could not support a Republican seat, had his district pick up considerable pieces of Westchester. To facilitate this move, Calandra, with the help of Vince Velella, created the North Bronx-Westchester Neighborhood Restoration Corporation (NBWNRC), and the Senate Republicans immediately started pouring money down the organization’s gullet.
NDWNRC was not a social services agency like Ridgewood-Bushwick, which came into being for its own reasons and then evolved into a political empire to further its social purposes. NBWNRC was a political machine which ran programs and distributed money to others only because doing so furthered its political purposes.
I was witness in 1984 to the awesome nature of the NBWNRC operation. Though Calandra, through dealings with Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman, had long gained the support of the Bronx Democratic Organization, Calandra was opposed by a Right To Life Candidate because he refused to take their Party line, even though his positions had earned it.
Calandra decided he would take the opportunity to send a message.
I happened to be working for a Democratic candidate in the neighboring Senate district. On every tree in every town which was split between the two districts were signs for Calandra. Every night while on runs to tear down our Republican opponent’s posters, we would see Calandra’s pictures, with his ugly toupee, on every tree, and sometimes our volunteers would try to tear them down as well.
Every one of the Calandra posters, and there were hundreds of them, was mounted on a wooden frame , and tied to the tree with metal wires. I once witnessed a three man crew with a truck putting them up.
Later, I learned that the poor Right to Lifer, whose daughter, a NOW activist, I later lived with, entertained little hope of winning any votes outside her own Catholic parish in New Rochelle, but found out in the middle of the campaign that her Parish was sponsoring a big party to honor Senator Calandra, who had just gotten NBWNRC to give a big grant to one of their programs.
Calandra’s message was “This is what I do when I’m virtually unopposed, so don’t fuck with me.”
Later, when Velella returned to elective office, NBWNRC would become his machine as well, becoming the Republican controlled Senate’s largest recipient of member item money (at $1.4 million yearly), even though, in the words of Velella’s successor, Jeff Klein, "It's a total waste of money,"
In 1986, Calandra died, and Velella was chosen by the Republicans for his seat. Calandra’s widow ran as an independent, and the Democrats made a real effort to win it themselves. It would have been smarter for them to nominate Calandra’s widow.
Another ugly race.
Velella’s supporters distributed campaign literature that championed him as an advocate of family values and criticized liberal Democrats for undermining sexual morality.
Then, in 1987, after he had won, Velella admitted that he had fathered a child out of wedlock with his Albany goomah.
Velella was so pro-family he had two of them.
But it was not only his choice of family arrangements which made Velella resemble one of the Sopranos, but his friends, like mobster Lou Moscatiello. As Robbins reported, wiretaps from a 1988 state corruption inquiry revealed that Moscatiello oversaw renovation of Velella's Bronx home.As the tapes also reveal, just before St. Patrick's Day in 1988, Velella was heard urging Moscatiello to join him for a celebration at the Kiwanis Club: "They got a gimmick with St. Patrick's night. If you finish early you could come over there…They're bringing in a donkey” said animal lover Velella in a scene reminiscent of “Clerks 2 “and they got a couple of girls, a couple of strippers.”
Velella also made headlines after it was revealed he received contributions from companies owned by Genovese family members. In 1982, he wrote a letter to a federal judge asking that a mobster be spared time for racketeering charges.
I would ask anyone who wants to join Klein and Skelos in even one second of fond reminiscence to give this Robbins article, “The Art of the Shakedown” a good read. It is an ugly tale, which I will not recount in full, which documents how the Velellas turned being a legislator into an organized crime enterprise. If that isn’t enough for you, here’s another. Search some more and you will probably find some atrocity that I missed.
By this time, Velella was not only a member of the Senate Majority, but Bronx County Republican boss. For his Party’s representative on the Board of Elections, he chose his dad, and when the local US Attorney, one Rudolph Giuliani, had criticized the choice, because of Vincent’s mob ties, the Velellas responded by backing Rudy’s primary opponent, Ron Lauder, for Mayor (Rudy and Guy would later make their peace).
While on the BOE, Vince was investigated for helping to keep on the ballot two school board candidates in Velella’s district whose petitions didn’t qualify.There is a sadness to much of this story; ironically, Velella had, long before his forced retirement, tired of being a State Senator, and with all his heart wanted to finish his career with a judgeship. It was not to be, for while the Bronx Democrats would have been glad to pay their friend off (as many had apparently done so many times before), for services rendered, the Senate Republicans cruelly would not let Velella give up his marginal seat, for fear it would be taken by a Democrat.
Marty Connor told Velella he was “serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.” Velella looked forward to little but continued servitude among the senior citizens of the Elephant’s Graveyard which constituted his Party Conference.
But for once, the Senate Republicans may have been responsible for the triumph of the lesser evil.
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